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Writing Literature Reviews


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This presentation is for research writers, both advanced undergraduate writers and graduate students (even junior faculty needed writing support!). It assumes that the reader is familiar with the basic purpose of the literature review, and delves deeply into *how* the writer might compose this part of the research article. It also assumes that the technical features of this difficult genre are underestimated, and thereby approaches the literature review as a *drama.* Research writers should feel free to draw on the presentation for strategies that will enable them to articulate their understanding of how their research problem influences the way their field talks about and acts in regards to this problem. Specifically, an examination of grammar as code for drama is explored.

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Writing Literature Reviews

  1. 1. Writing Literature ReviewsA Workshop Sponsored by: the Penn State Graduate Writing Center Designed by: Alexandria Lockett, Ph.D.
  2. 2. What’s the purpose of Lit Reviews? What does it do? Enables you to establish credibility and trustworthiness to your audience How does it do it? Demonstrate how scholarship influences your framework, methods, and/or conclusions Why does it do it? Readers have little incentive to read your work if they don’t see how it will be useful to their knowledge about the field/discipline, and ergo your research
  3. 3. What Makes Lit Reviews Hard? Interpretation is a meta-cognitive exercise. Problem: Interpreting Sources is not simply summary. Effect: No visible connection between ideas/paragraphs Strategy: You need to create a narrative about how your sources talk about/write/research the problem you are trying to solve.
  4. 4. Issue #1: Where Do I Start? 1. Write for exactly ONE HOUR about everything you know about your research topic. Put aside for 1-2 days. 2. Re-visit your writing. Analyze the draft, using the following questions: - What problem am I trying to solve? - Do I acknowledge others trying to resolve the same problem? - Do I discuss any aspect of how they talk about the problem or how they try to solve it? - Are key sources missing from my discussion? Who? Why are their views essential to the conversation? 3. Rewrite the statement. Put aside for a week. During the week, consider possible organization structures. Is the issue new? Emerging? How does it relate/impact other phenomena.
  5. 5. Possible Organization Structures What conversations would help us understand why you are doing your research? 1. Which social, political, technological, or economic contexts brought your topic into being? 2. How do these contexts continue to shape the frameworks, definitions, methods? 3. What are some gaps, omissions, weaknesses involved in the conversation that you want to contribute? Strategy: To consider the way you want to ‘tell the story’ about your topic, re-evaluate the way scholars present their literature reviews. Look for patterns. Borrow the structure of literature reviews that made you want to keep reading the research. - Does a certain context or time period recur? - Are the same scholars referenced? - Do they talk about the topic in the same way? What kind of jargon shows up? - Does the academic language conceal more than it reveals? - What do they assume is true, and is your research about this problem?
  6. 6. Possible Organization Structures Purpose of Researcher: To learn more about how researchers have studied a subject. 1. Recent or underexplored topics may take on a more linear structure before organizing by topic/theme.. Example: Borderline Personality Disorder w(BPD) as not recognized by professional psychological circles until [19XX]. Consequently, few studies conducted before 1975 investigate treatment options for this condition. Studies on the topic have increased significantly in the past ten years, and most researchers focus on patient demographics and survival rates. For example, X designed Y to analyze some of the environmental factors that influence patients. On the other hand, X, Y, and Z examined some of the neurological aspects of the condition through their comparison of patient MRIs. These studies influence psychiatry research on the subject because several studies grapple with the complex interaction between social and biological forces on the manifestation of BPD. Purpose of Researcher: To learn more about how historical issues impact contemporary studies. 2. Older issues in a field may focus more on emerging themes/topics to reiterate their importance. Example: Recently, Borderline Personality Disorder seems to dominate contemporary discussions about the psychology of women (INSERT SOURCES). Gender and psychology has always been a problem for the field, especially since researchers associated concepts like neurotic and hysterical with women (INSERT SOURCES)
  7. 7. Issue #2: How should I organize? After you have read a few articles on your subject, you should be thinking about your understanding of the problem(s) you are investigating. Organizing the lit review is an art not a science, and the way you choose to connect your paragraphs will reveal two interdependent things: (1) Your understanding of the conversation (2) Your ability to convey that understanding to an audience. To do this, you will need to ask yourself the following question: How should I write about writing? To accomplish this objective, we must consider the grammar of processes...
  8. 8. Issue #3: How do I avoid repetition? Do you find yourself repeating words over and over again? This is probably because you are not used to writing a narrative! Literature Reviews “tell a story” about research. Based on your review, how do other’s research processes relate to and inform your study? Definitions: Does your study focus on re-defining an established concept in the field? Was some change in frameworks or definition so important that, without it, you wouldn’t be able to do your study? Is there something missing from the definition/conceptualization of the problem? Methods: Does your study focus on creating new methods? How have scholars studied your subject? What seems to work? What has been overlooked? Will you include new variables/participants, or simply replicate a pre-existing methodology? Findings: Did some major research finding/discovery motivate your study? Which major findings related to your topic is it nearly impossible to ignore? Are there findings that have been overlooked? Do you want to dispute other’s findings?
  9. 9. The Drama of Research Since research is a complex event that involves many characters, actions, scenes, and agencies/instruments, it is nearly impossible to organize ideas in a linear sequence. Narrative structure best organizes LR’s because they give us the freedom to structure our thoughts through time, events, characters, or methods. Characters: Researchers, Scholars, Participants, Studies, Articles, Books, Anthologies, Definition Acts: Study, Examine, Design, Produce, Develop, Maintain, Defend, Critique, Argue, Debate, Illustrate, Demonstrate, Utilize, Adopt, Adapt, Innovate, Replicate, Designate, Define, Refine Agencies: Linear regression, ethnography, feminist framework, Post-Colonial approach, comparative analysis, meta-analysis Events: Seminal Work, Novel finding, Ground-breaking investigation, Laws, Funding, Protest, Current Events (e.g. Civil War, Famine), Recent Discovery, Scenes: Lab, Conference, Classroom, Medical Facility, Institution Name (e.g. Oxford University), Geographic Location (e.g. Miami, FL or Uganda)
  11. 11. Connecting Grammar and Drama Examine the following syntax: Characters Perform Acts Utilizing/Applying Agencies. Sometimes their Acts lead to events or events cause them to act. Scenes may need to be included if location(s) helps us better understand any of these parts of a drama.. Tip: Translate the form, using the word matrix. When you start building terms into the matrix, it will expand the range of possible meanings you can convey with this subject. Feel free to use the matrix, instead of a thesaurus, to increase your vocabulary about a given subject. Example: Researchers conducted several qualitative studies to measure the relationship between the architecture of classroom spaces and student’s acquisition of information literacy. Some studies claim that such literacy is more easily obtained through collaborative, peer-to- peer learning (Scholar, Year). Scholars such as ______also argue that this method is not likely to be successful when a classroom features individual desks arranged in linear rows facing a podium placed in front of the room (Scholar, Year). In fact, several scholars believe that SES affects both learning design and outcomes. According to _______’s comparative analysis of classroom design in several of Northern California’s poorest and wealthiest middle schools, every single working class school featured traditional classroom arrangements. (Scholar(s), Year)
  12. 12. Questions/Comments? Visit or email me at For additional writing resources authored by Dr. Alexandria Lockett, visit: